- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A man who was found guilty of being responsible for an alcohol-fueled hit-and-run crash has been granted a new trial because prosecutors used gruesome photos of a fetus that was killed in the crash.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals released an opinion Tuesday to award Curtis Scott Harper, 26, a new trial in the May 30, 2012, crash that killed three people on the side of a Knoxville road, multiple media outlets report.

The court ruled that now-retired Knox County Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz was wrong to allow the display of the trial’s most gruesome photographs because the images were unnecessary in determining whether Harper was speeding, drunk or both.

Many jurors cried when prosecutors projected photos of the unborn baby’s severed head and arm during Harper’s April 2013 trial.

“The challenged photographs were graphic and gruesome, some extremely so,” Appellate Judge Robert L. Holloway Jr. wrote. “Based on the inflammatory nature of the photographs and their minimal probative value, we believe their introduction more probably than not affected the jury’s judgment and resulted in prejudice to the judicial process.”

Harper, a recent University of Tennessee graduate, had been sentenced to 30 years on three counts of vehicular homicide and related charges.

Prosecutors said Harper was drunk and speeding when he hit Nelzon A. Soto, 45, Chasity Elaine Thornell, 24, and Thornell’s unborn daughter as they stood along Washington Pike. Thornell had gone to help her friend, Sarah Tinder, who had run out of gas in the middle of the night. Soto, a nearby homeowner, offered to assist.

Harper’s defense attorney James W. Price Jr. said there was no proof Harper was legally intoxicated or speeding. He said Harper thought he had struck a disabled car.

“The photographs in this case were, without a doubt, the most grotesque, horrifying and unnecessary photographs that I have viewed in 17 years on this court,” Appellate Judge John Everett Williams wrote in a separate opinion.

The case will return to Knox County Criminal Court for the setting of a new trial.

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